Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari must meet with Biafran secessionist leader Nnamdi Kanu before violence between the army and separatists escalates into a full-blown conflict, according to Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Speaking to Newsweek in London, Obasanjo—who served as Nigeria’s first elected head of state from 1999 to 2007—says that the heavy-handed tactics of the Nigerian state against pro-Biafra activists, a secessionist movement that is pushing for an independent state, have not suceeded, and a more conciliatory approach is needed.
“I don’t see anything wrong in that [Buhari meeting with Kanu]. I would not object to that; if anything, I would encourage it,” Obasanjo tells Newsweek.
“I would want to meet Kanu myself and talk to people like him, people of his age, [and ask:] ‘What are your worries?’ Not only from the southeast but from all parts of Nigeria.”
Declaring itself an independent republic in southeast Nigeria in 1967, Biafra was reintegrated into Nigeria in 1970 after a three-year civil war in which at least 1 million people died. Obasanjo fought alongside Buhari on the Nigerian side in the war.
Kanu, a British-Nigerian dual national, has risen to prominence as the leader of modern pro-Biafra separatists. Kanu was arrested in Nigeria in October 2015 and held for almost two years without going to trial. He was bailed in April but faces trial for charges of treason.
Kanu’s backers accused the Nigerian military of invading his home and killing supporters earlier this week—a charge the military denied.
While Buhari has largely avoided speaking publicly on the Biafra issue, the Nigerian military has come under scrutiny for what right groups say is a heavy-handed response to protests by Kanu’s group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and other separatists.
Nigerian security forces killed at least 150 pro-Biafra supporters between August 2015 and November 2016—including some in extrajudicial executions, according to a report by Amnesty International.
The number included at least 60 people who were killed at a memorial gathering in May 2016, when security forces raided homes and a church where IPOB members were sleeping. The Nigerian military denied Amnesty International’s allegations and said IPOB members had used “unjustifiable violence” against soldiers.
Nigerian soldiers were recently deployed to the southeastern state of Abia, where Kanu is currently living. IPOB members alleged that soldiers surrounded Kanu’s home on Sunday and killed several people, but the Nigerian Army said in a statement that IPOB members had blocked the road while army vehicles were on patrol, and had thrown stones at soldiers.
The statement said the soldiers fired in the air to disperse the IPOB members and that no one was killed. The army shared a video which it said supported their account.
Obasanjo says that the army’s “heavy boot” response to pro-Biafra sentiment is “not the solution,” but adds that the secession craved by IPOB is not the way forward either.
The former president, who was also military head of state in Nigeria from 1976–1979, says economic development in the country is the only way to solve the issue. Some Igbo leaders have complained that President Buhari, who hails from northern Nigeria, has prioritized the development of other parts of the country to their detriment.
“We need to satisfy the youth in job creation, in wealth creation, in giving them a better, fulfilled life, in giving them hope for the future,” says Obasanjo. “There’s no easy way out.”
The Biafran war erupted in 1967, after Odumegwu Ojukwu, a Nigerian military officer, declared independence. Biafra was largely populated by the Igbos, a mostly Christian ethnic group; Ojukwu's declaration of independence came on the back of pogroms against Igbos in northern Nigeria, which is dominated by the mostly Muslim Hausa ethnic group.
Nigeria, which had a much larger military force, blockaded the Biafran order, leading to a famine that sparked worldwide condemnation when images and footage of starving Biafran children seeped out to the international media.
Ethnic tensions have again been boiling over recently in Nigeria, a country of more than 180 million people and hundreds of ethnic groups. A coalition of youth groups ordered Igbos to leave northern Nigeria in June; while the demand was rubbished by the Nigerian government, none of the leaders of the groups were arrested.
Obasanjo, a senior Nigerian commander during the war, says Nigeria must avoid allowing the current tensions to escalate into another conflict. “Those who fought in the war in Biafra will not want to fight any other war," he says. “I have fought one war too many in Nigeria; I don’t want to see another."